Father paved Strahan's path to Hall

August 2, 2014, 1:32 PM

— -- As the son of a man who supported nine children on a custodian's wage, Gene Strahan was going to raise his own family around the virtues of an honest day's work. He was ambitious enough to earn a college degree, strong enough to command an Army unit of the 82nd Airborne, and tough enough to beat a future heavyweight champ, Ken Norton, in a boxing ring before a crowd of delirious soldiers.

So yes, his six kids were going to play through the whistle. They would be grinders and achievers and, of greater consequence, they would be givers, too.

While his youngest, Michael, was building a New York Giants career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Gene Strahan, a retired major living near his base in Mannheim, Germany, was loading supplies onto 18-wheelers with his wife, Louise, and their three older sons and traveling to war-torn Yugoslavia to help strangers in dire need.

They would make these humanitarian drives of up to 18 hours through Germany, Austria and Hungary on the way to Serbia, enduring paperwork and security checks at the borders that matched the tension of the day.

"Nobody could believe we were making that many trips unless we were making a profit," said Michael's brother, Victor.

The Strahans were dealing only in the currency of human decency. With his transport company struggling in the 1990s, with his family forever running into the roadblock of what they believed to be racial profiling, Gene promised God he would help others if business improved. The 30 goodwill trips across Eastern Europe amounted to the manifestation of that pledge.

The family would gather old clothing, furniture, building materials, you name it, from American military bases to deliver to those suffering before and after the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia, and during a period where charges of genocide and other war crimes defined the reign of Slobodan Milosevic. Victor and his brothers Chris and Gene Jr. encountered border agents who would pull everything off the trucks, take what they wanted, and ask the Strahans to reload the leftovers.

Locals advised the family to bring cigarettes and coffee to the guards, but Gene Sr. refused. "I'm doing God's work," he'd say. "I'm not bribing anyone to do this."

One day at the Hungary-Serbia border, Serbian patrol guards unhappy with U.S. policy denied Victor and Chris entry into their country. The Strahans sat in their truck in freezing conditions for four days, turning the engine on and off in an attempt to stay warm without burning too much of the fuel sympathetic Serbian citizens had given them.

"This was during the Milosevic time, after the fall of Communism, and it was kind of like the mafia the way they ran the borders," Chris said. "Some of the people we eventually helped would say, 'We know the history of what black Americans went through, so why are you constantly coming back to help us?'

"The Serbian people thought Americans hated them after the NATO bombing, but this one man, my Yugoslavian brother, told me, 'Your family kept coming back and brought us hope. We had no hope before then.' One day we were in Serbia and an old lady stood up in church and said, 'We always prayed for an angel to help us, but we never thought God would send us black angels.' There are still areas where my family is remembered as the American black angels."

The baby of that family, Michael Strahan, was almost part of that legacy, too. He'd just turned 18 when he arrived in his old Mannheim home for the holidays after his first semester at Texas Southern University in Houston, arrived with all of his dorm-room possessions in tow. Michael was homesick. He told his old man that he was done with his American school and its football team, and that he wanted to work for him in Germany.

Gene Strahan wasn't hearing any of that. His father, the custodian, left school after the second grade, and his mother left after the fifth, both to help support the family. Gene wanted Michael to get his full education, and to gamble on the athletic talent he'd worked so hard to refine as a child living in a foreign land.

Way back when, Gene himself had given some thought to becoming a professional athlete. He was a light heavyweight fighting out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a good one, when he faced a heavyweight Marine named Ken Norton out of Camp Lejeune.

"He outweighed me by about 20 pounds," Gene said, "and it was all muscle. But I'd been around enough heavies to know they can't in-fight; they're looking for that long range. I knew the joker could hit, so I had to outmaneuver him. It was a little like the Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope. Norton was trying to knock me out, but I'd been around too long for that. He ran out of steam."

Gene won the decision; Norton returned the favor in their second and final fight. Strahan decided against chasing those glory days, enrolled in Prairie View A&M University and returned to the Army as an officer. He ultimately moved from Fort Bragg to Mannheim, where it was clear that Gene and Louise -- a skilled basketball player in her day -- had passed down their athletic genes to the kids.

Chris was the natural among the Strahans' four boys and two girls. "I was the captain and star of the football, baseball and track teams," he said. "When you came to Mannheim, I was the guy. But I never dreamed of being a professional football player. That was Michael's dream."

Gene nurtured that dream, too, waking young Michael at 5 a.m. and taking him on three- to five-mile runs through the Mannheim woods. Father and son would drop down and do push-ups in their living room, and go to the gym together to focus on drills that would improve the boy's explosiveness and strength. Michael even watched Jane Fonda exercise tapes to lose the baby fat that inspired his brothers and friends to mock his considerable rump. As the youngest Strahan grew into his teens, his became a grim drive toward NFL greatness.

"Michael sacrificed a lot of his youth to become what he became," Chris said. "I remember one Friday night, ready to go out with friends, and there was Michael in his room with a sad face. He said, 'I've got to go to the gym, and I don't want to go.' I felt sorry for him at that moment, but that's what he needed to do."

Michael found his preferred form of entertainment in the dead of night, watching the Monday night institution in the States that he called "Tuesday Morning Football." As a child, Michael had started falling hard for the game while playing on a Pop Warner level at Fort Bragg.

"He was a superstar the first time he stepped on the field," Victor said. "A kid ran around the opposite end with the ball, Michael ran him down, and then Michael started crying. He wasn't hurt or scared, and when the coach asked him what was wrong he said, 'Nothing. I'm not crying.' I think they were just tears of shock."

Years later in Germany, Michael was known for his home run prowess in baseball and for winning a championship with Victor in the military's Dependent Youth Activities basketball league. Ramstein Air Base had defeated Mannheim in a regular-season game the Strahans attended as fans, and its players had talked enough trash afterward to inspire Michael and Victor to join the vanquished team.

Revenge would be had in the heated rematch, and there was no doubt who was Mannheim's steamroller. "I was injured," said Victor, who had won it the year before with Chris, "and Michael just carried us to that title."

But after Gene retired from the Army, he decided Michael wouldn't realize his ambitions by staying in Mannheim and attending the local Christian academy. The father couldn't afford the $5,000 tuition that would've placed Michael in a Department of Defense school large enough to field a football team, so he sent his son to the Houston area to attend Westbury High School for his senior season and to live with one of Gene's brothers, Art, a former Texas Southern defensive end who had played nine games for the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons in the '60s.

Michael knew little about American high school football, and less about American culture. "It was almost like moving to Mars," Victor said.

"When I picked Michael up at the airport and drove him in," Art said, "he saw a 'Drugs' sign at a store and thought people went in there and bought what drug dealers sell on the street. He didn't see signs like that in Germany."

At 6-foot-5, Michael could see eye to eye with his imposing uncle when the two went head to head in Art's front yard. "I roughed him up so bad," Art said, "sometimes I drew blood. But I knew he had to get mentally and physically tougher to play in the NFL."

He had to get through college first. Michael improved enough in his season at Westbury to attract one scholarship offer -- Cisco College, a two-year school in Texas. Art got in touch with Texas Southern coach Walter Highsmith and sold him on taking Michael in.

It was the wisest football investment Texas Southern ever made. Gene talked his son into making the return trip from Germany to Houston in the middle of his freshman year, and there was no turning back from that. Over future holiday breaks, when other students cleared out, Strahan remained on campus and biked up hills and ran the stadium steps. He sacked the other team's quarterback 19 times in his final college season, good enough for the New York Giants to make him the 40th pick of the 1993 draft.

Cowering in his Times Square hotel room in the days after that draft, Strahan was afraid of the big city, afraid to follow Lawrence Taylor, and afraid to fail his father. But the football player was determined to channel his fear of failure into something special.

The military ethos Gene had drilled into his son, said Art Strahan, "was 100 percent of Michael's success. With he and his dad, when you see one you see the other. Michael never wanted to displease his father."

Funny how it worked out, but the Giants coach who mirrored Gene Strahan's approach the most, establishing a yes-sir, no-sir tone to his camp, was a coach Michael hated.

Tom Coughlin saw that sentiment in Strahan's face during their first contentious meeting in 2004, when the pass-rusher with six of his seven Pro Bowls trips and a single-season league record 22.5 sacks (in 2001) behind him carried that leverage into the new guy's office. Michael wanted Coughlin to know that Giants camp shouldn't be confused with Fort Bragg or the Army garrison in Mannheim.

"I remember when he came up the stairs, he'd already predetermined what he was going to find in me," Coughlin said. "He'd anticipated that the answers were not going to be very good, and he was a little bit disturbed. But even that day when he came to see me, it was a concern for the entire team. He wasn't up there to complain about how he was being treated. With Michael, it was always about the team."

Coughlin understands why his program, in his words, "won Michael over" and turned the pass-rusher into one of the coach's strongest advocates on the way to beating the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Strahan was an invaluable presence on Coughlin's leadership council -- the sturdy bridge between a boss who demanded early arrivals for meetings and a workforce that demanded respect.

"I've thought about this many times," Coughlin said. "I'm grateful for what his dad and mom instilled in him at home. I know there was discipline there, and as time went on that was one of the main reasons that when Michael did come on board, he came on with both feet. We never talked about it, but there's no question Michael's upbringing definitely helped him accept the way the program was going to be run."

By the end of his 15-year career, after his coach had tempered his own management style, Strahan was a blind believer in the Coughlin way. "One of the greatest compliments he ever paid me," the coach said, "was when he said he sets his watch 10 minutes ahead."

Strahan was voted a captain by his fellow Giants in 2007, right after he staged a 36-day training camp holdout in a contract dispute. That doesn't happen in sports. His teammates' respect for him was unmatched.

Coughlin's predecessor, Jim Fassel, saw that respect grow every time Strahan refused his offer to take off a practice rep or two. In Fassel's final season, a 4-12 season, Strahan refused to leave the field for the sanctuary of the bench when his coach was trying to save his body and spare him some endgame indignities.

His father had taught him to finish everything he'd started. "Michael worked like a rookie trying to make the team all seven years I was there," Fassel said.

That work ethic was responsible for 141.5 sacks, or one grabbed jersey behind the greatest defensive player of all time, Lawrence Taylor, whose 9.5 sacks as a rookie in 1981 -- the league didn't start counting officially until 1982 -- would give him 142. Strahan retired as the rare pass-rusher who was just as strong against the run, and as the rare left end who hit the quarterback more often than the elite right ends.

He also retired as a champion who spent the closing moments of Super Bowl XLII assuring the Giants -- down 14-10 to New England at the time -- that a 17-14 victory was a mortal lock.

"We'd just given up that touchdown to the Patriots," Coughlin said, "and I remember Michael walking up and down our sideline saying, 'We're one drive away. One drive away from a world championship.' He's one of the most natural captains I've ever been around, from a leadership standpoint, because people just flow to him. He had a magnetic personality, and it was a wonderful thing to see."

A football player needs more than a magnetic personality, his mother's sense of humor and a cute space between his front teeth to become a crossover entertainment star. Michael Strahan had an interesting backstory, and spending his entire NFL career in the New York market didn't hurt. But he wasn't Derek Jeter. Strahan had baggage.

He had his feuds with Coughlin, Tiki Barber and the news media. He lectured one reporter on camera while the remnants of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich came flying out of his mouth. He made an unscheduled trip to the Giants' media room on the day Fassel was burying his mother in California and went on and on criticizing the coach and the team's offense.

Strahan's sacks record was stained by Brett Favre's famous flop, and he didn't exactly come across as a gracious winner when he did his We stomped you out! bit at the Patriots' expense. Strahan also had two failed marriages in his past and one ugly public divorce that left him vehemently denying charges by his wife that he'd abused her (a judge dismissed the claim).

Strahan nearly retired with Barber after the 2006 season, which could've cost him more than he ever knew. He'd marched with his agents into the office of the Giants' rookie general manager, Jerry Reese, and announced he wouldn't play the 2007 season for the $4 million wage he was under contract to receive.

Understanding that he needed to show strength in the early hours of his administration, Reese told Strahan, "There's nothing I can do. We're going to have a great retirement party for you."

Strahan played for the four mil. "If he didn't come back for that [Super Bowl] season," Reese said, "imagine how it might've been different for him. It could've changed the life he's living. He might not have all these opportunities."

Including the biggest one as Kelly Ripa's co-host on Disney-ABC's "LIVE with Kelly and Michael." Strahan was among 59 candidates who filled in for the retired Regis Philbin, including Josh Groban and Seth Meyers.

Strahan's close friend, Dr. Ian Smith, the TV personality and author, told him that if ABC was concerned about putting a black man in such a prominent morning show role, he wouldn't end up in Regis' chair. "But if it's just based on mass appeal," Smith told him, "you're selected."

This wasn't just another ex-jock job in a studio or a booth. Only a handful of football players -- Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson among them -- had made the jump from the locker room into general TV/film stardom.

"Michael has the charisma, he has the skills, and the chemistry with Kelly was most important," said Michael Gelman, the show's executive producer. "He definitely had something special, that twinkle. He's a big guy, but when he smiles he feels like a big teddy bear and people really respond to it.

"A million people have great personalities, but very few can show it day in and day out, and very few can do it on camera. ... I've been doing this for 30 years and have produced tens of thousands of hours of shows with a lot of different hosts and guests, and my staff and I know what it feels like when it works."

Strahan, who will turn 43 in November, has been a smash ratings hit; he has had even more success replacing Regis as a co-host than he had replacing LT as a pass-rusher, and he has moved into the "Good Morning America" rotation while also keeping his job as a Fox football analyst. He had lunch with Barber not long ago near ABC's studios -- the two had long gotten past their silly in-career squabbles -- and the former running back couldn't get over the stir Strahan caused.

"We're walking back and all these 50-year-old women are screaming at him and running across the street saying, 'Hey Michael, please take a picture with me,'" Barber said. "Ten years ago it was 25-year-old guys in Giants jerseys doing that, but that's the demographic that loves him now."

The Strahans see more of Michael's TV career than they ever saw of his days as a Giant; they were too busy making a difference in faraway corners of the globe. Beyond the humanitarian work in what was Yugoslavia and East Germany, Chris moved to the Netherlands and taught American football to young boys, and has plans to do the same in Serbia. With the help of Victor and his sister Sandra, Chris' non-profit, New York-based Team Strahan Sports, organizes community events for children who can use a break.

"The goodness of our hearts cost us a lot of money overseas," Chris said. "But it would all mean nothing if we didn't continue that path we were on back here."

Gene Sr., old Army paratrooper, set this tone for his family just as his father set the tone for him. Michael has visited wounded American troops in Germany, and given his time to numerous charitable causes closer to home. With Barber as his guest, Michael served as master of ceremonies Sunday night at a Fenway Park benefit for a father of four diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer.

"He's indefatigable," said Smith, his close friend. "He will work and grind when he doesn't have to. Some wonder why he doesn't coast now that he's made it, but he doesn't see it that way. His work ethic, his discipline, his goal orientation -- his dad instilled those values. Stray attributes the positives in his life to being around his dad."

At 77, Gene Strahan gets to live the payoff Saturday among dozens of family members and friends. His kid is going down in football history as a grinder and finisher. More than anything, Michael Strahan is going into the Hall of Fame as his father's son.

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